White Noise2 October 2016
You come home from a long day at uni or work. You relax on the couch. You switch on the TV. White, White and more White. It’s as though Australian TV is awash with White faces. Despite Australia being one of the most multicultural countries in the world, our TV shows don’t seem to reflect this.
In August 2016, Screen Australia released a report exploring diversity (or rather lack thereof) on Australian TV. It found that although over one third of people in Australia are from non-Anglo backgrounds, only 18 per cent of Australian TV characters are non-Anglo. The most under-represented ethnic minority groups were Asians, Africans, Indigenous Australians and Middle-Easterners.
You don’t have to look very far to see the ‘White ceiling’ of Australian TV.
Australian TV dramas are by far the worst at incorporating cultural diversity into their casts, with the 2016 casts of Neighbours and Home and Away being completely White. The hosts of Sunrise, The Morning Show, The Footy Show and most journalists on mainstream TV stations are also mascots for the #vanillalife.
Children’s programmes and comedies are found to be the most culturally diverse – for instance, Dance Academy, Ready for This and The Family Law. However, the majority of these TV shows aren’t broadcast on mainstream commercial television stations, leaving a multicultural gap on our TV screens.
Australian TV needs to be a genuine reflection of our multicultural society, not just broadcast programmes with tokenistic characters or cultural stereotypes. Television is a ubiquitous media form, with Australians watching an average of three hours of TV per day. Cultural representations on TV can shape social norms, reinforce stereotypes or show the complexities of modern-day multicultural Australia. That’s why it’s vital for Australian TV to broadcast accurate depictions of our communities.
The lack of cultural diversity behind the scenes is one of the reasons for the multicultural gap on Australian TV. Only 15 per cent of Australian content producers and writers are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Yet, 93 per cent of writers agree that there needs to be more cultural diversity on Australian TV screens.
An Australian TV writer, Alix Lee, told Screen Australia that “the advice is clear from producers: the [main characters] have to be White”. This is shockingly reflected in an experience of an Australian director who cut a character because they were Chinese. “[It] had nothing to do with the actor’s prowess or lack of, it was done simply because the character and actor were Chinese and considered to lack appeal because of that.”
Waleed Aly’s Gold Logie acceptance speech highlighted how some aspiring actors Anglicise themselves to get more acting jobs. Aly referred to a young actor who told him, “my name’s Mustafa but I can’t use that name because I won’t get a job”. ‘Mustafa’ turned out to be Tyler De Nawi from The Principal and Here Come the Habibs. On a casting website, De Nawi Anglicised his name, yet kept the same resumé and was immediately given more job offers.
In 2014, a study found very few examples of inter-ethnic couples on Australian TV dramas. Specifically, inter-ethnic couples that did not involve at least one person of Anglo descent; for instance, a Chinese-Australian and an Indian-Australian. Additionally, on Australian TV it is more likely for inter-ethnic couples to have casual sexual encounters or short-term relationships, rather than be written into storylines as married couples with children.
One way to increase representation on Australian TV is to involve more people from ethnic minorities, not just in acting roles but in the behind-the-scenes process as well. A TV show that manages to do this successfully is ABC’s Redfern Now. Although 83 per cent of Australian TV shows have no Indigenous main characters, Redfern Now is a step in the right direction. This show involves Indigenous actors, characters, filmmakers, screen writers and is filmed in Indigenous communities. If Australia had more TV programmes that were centred on particular cultural communities, it would diversify the television industry and create more accurate cultural representations.
Some TV writers and casting agents argue that the reason there isn’t a wide range of ethnicities on Australian TV is because there’s a shortage of non-Anglo actors.
Yet if aspiring non-Anglo actors only see White, blue-eyed, blond bombshells in Ramsay Street or Summer Bay, they’re going to feel discouraged from entering the White-dominated Australian TV industry.
Commercial TV stations aim to attract broad audiences to get higher ratings, so they often cast the big names in the industry. Yet, if actors from ethnic minority groups are rarely given the opportunity to be cast on TV, how can they gain experience and popularity to become TV stars?
One answer is for the Australian TV industry to have more ‘colour-blind casting’. This refers to casting actors for roles, regardless of ethnicity. Colour-blind casting could help increase the number of non-Anglo lead actors and avoid actors from ethnic minorities playing cultural stereotypes. A female agent from the Screen Australia study said, “Children’s drama is very diverse but network TV will only rarely colour-blind cast. The character usually has to be written as diverse before they will see anyone not White”.
The UK and US have far more colour-blind casting in comparison to Australia. This is because their casting agents often receive profiles for roles that say “send any ethnicity”. However, in Australia the culturally diverse characters tend to be part of the supporting cast, rather than lead roles. When a character’s ethnicity is not specified, it’s often assumed that they’re White and will cast Anglo-actors.
If we can have Dami Im, a South-Korean Australian, represent Australia at Eurovision and award a Gold Logie to Waleed Aly (an Australian with an Egyptian background) surely this means times are changing. Producers and casting agents only need to walk through any Australian city to see multiculturalism at its best. It’s time to add more rainbow to the plain, White casts on Australian TV.